By Rosa Noriega-Rocha and Christopher Soriano
Amid the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black individuals, there emerged a cry for justice demanding local and state governments to defund the police. The world watched as the United States grappled with its identity as a police state under the hands of white supremacy. It didn’t take long for the cry to reach the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) located in Watsonville, CA.
PVUSD is located within Santa Cruz County. The county is highly segregated with a predominantly white community in the city of Santa Cruz and its BIPOC community (predominantly Latinx) living in Watsonville. It is the home to the Watsonville Film Festival, the Digital NEST, and given Watsonville’s presence in agriculture, it is also home to the headquarters of Driscoll’s .
The Watsonville Police Department is located downtown a short walk away from Watsonville High School (one of PVUSD’s largest and oldest high schools). Students are often seen walking to and from school invariably having to pass by the building. It is as if the presence of police is inevitable both figuratively and literally given the proximity of the police station to WHS.
On June 24th, 2020 the superintendent of PVUSD announced that due to the global pandemic, PVUSD’s budget was going to have to make $19 million worth of cuts. One of the proposed items to be eliminated was EAOP, a college readiness program that has helped countless students who are predominantly first-generation students and come from working-class backgrounds. Though superintendent Michelle Rodriguez continuously accredited herself for strongly supporting this program throughout her tenure as superintendent, the initial budget, which did away with the $1.4 million EAOP contract, passed.
Though the funding for EAOP was eventually reinstated a few days later, the board’s initial decision to cut a program that has helped historically marginalized students go to college, sent out a clear message: the board of trustees valued the presence of SROs (Student Resource Officer) so much that, even during a global pandemic that called for drastic budget cuts, the SRO budget remained untouched.
The presence of SROs goes back to the history of policing and overcriminalization of BIPOC. The 1994 crime bill, passed under the Clinton administration “contributed to [the] ongoing rampant police misconduct and racial profiling by deploying hundreds of thousands of officers into neighborhoods of color.” Most notably, the 1994 Crime Bill also allowed for the funding of SROs which have invariably contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline. A PVUSD alumnus, now a father of a PVUSD recent graduate, reiterates the origins of SROs:
I became aware of SRO’s during my high school days, I graduated in 1995 and believe they were placed in 1994 at WHS; I was 17-18 at that time. Not coincidentally, the 1994 Crime Bill was signed into effect by President Bill Clinton, with the Super Predator theory in mind, which now has been proven completely false, yet all the policies that were put in place remain intact.
The criminalization of youth of color in Watsonville is nothing new. Over 60% of the population in Santa Cruz County juvenile hall are youth from Watsonville. Though Latinx folks are only 32% of the population in the county, they are criminalized at an alarming rate.
One of the ways in which schools directly contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline is by the hyper criminalization of their students, and youth in PVUSD schools are no strangers to this. In 2013, the board agreed to pass an initiative that aimed to bring forth drug dogs to help SROs conduct random “drug” searches at PVUSD schools. As one alumnus remembers:
"School police officers and search dogs are heavy in Watsonville schools… Imagine having attended an unfinished school, with very few resources on campus, along with heavy policing and searches. What kind of atmosphere do you think that creates for the students there?"
Another student currently attending Aptos High also experienced being criminalized and harassed at the hands of an SRO when they and a friend were called into the office for being “kind of giggly”:
"Out of nowhere, two of our security guards walk in the class and tell us to go with him… The guards were incredibly rude, cold and threatening. Me and my friend were separated and we had to wait in the office for over 30 minutes. I was very mad that I was being wrongfully accused. A nice and comforting counselor searched our bags and, of course, she found nothing. But it was still a very scary moment in my life. "
In response to the political climate, a survey conducted and posted by a collective of current and former PVUSD students (organizing under the name of @pvusdstudents_deserve), aimed to collect data about the presence of SROs on school grounds. They received a total of 596 responses from PVUSD students and alumni. The data revealed that 80.5% of students did not feel safe with SROs in their schools and that 49% have witnessed an SRO harassing or profiling another student. Furthermore, 85% of students reported that SROs did not contribute to their academic success. Instead, the top three factors that students claimed to have attributed to their success have been teachers, friends, and EAOP counselors.
The services that students need in order to succeed academically, continue to be scarce in PVUSD schools. Beyond the restorative justice model that has proven to be beneficial in school settings, @pvusdstudents_deserve’s survey results revealed that current and former PVUSD students are now demanding services which are fundamental to their success. Among the comments contributed, 234 Students stated that they wanted the SRO budget to be reallocated and invested in trained professionals (psychologists, therapists, social workers), 158 Students stated that they wanted to have more college access programs such as EAOP. 112 students stated mentioned that they wanted our board to provide more elective classes to enrich our student’s academic experience. Notably, 171 students who left comments, were very much against the presence of SROs on school grounds.
Before the 07/22/2020 decision, PVUSD had the same number of many socio-emotional counselors at the high school level as SROs. Which of course, speaks volumes of the types of services that our board of trustees, sees as worthy of investing in.
Alexis, an alumnus from PVUSD, works with youth in education and is very much attuned to the ways in which PVUSD has failed to provide its students with the services that they need:
"Unfortunately as a society what we have done is asked police officers to do the jobs that should not be police officer’s jobs….So instead of having a fully funded mental health department or social workers that could go out to help people, we’ve asked cops to do that and they are not equipped to be able to handle those sorts of interactions."
Chief Honda from the Watsonville Police Department openly mentioned that police officers are nowhere near equipped to handle situations that involve mental health matters. Oddly enough, barbers require more training to become certified than police officers. In California, barbers require around 1,600 hours of training. Police officers require 664 hours of academy training.
Having had the experience of working with youth who are system impacted, Alexis understands all too well the desperate need for professional staff that are attuned to issues that are prevalent in the lives of students instead of investing in ill-equipped police officers.
On another note, Alexis also acknowledges that one of the ways in which we can further divert from utilizing SROs, which only serve to further criminalize our students, is to implement restorative justice approaches at the High School level:
"I have been pushing for PVUSD to adopt a restorative justice program like the one set in place at Sequoia High School. Currently at Sequoia High School, they make it a point to have healing at the center of the conversation as well as community building. If you don’t have a community to restore into students teachers aren’t as invested in wanting to resolve conflict."
The restorative justice model that has been very successful in a lot of school districts and has been pushed forth by experts in education. It is time that we as a society begin to expand our understanding of healing. If we truly want to get at the root of any social issue, we must be willing to involve the person who is doing the harm to others, in a conversation that allows them to take full accountability for their actions. Alexis states the following:
"Usually when something happens at Sequoia High School we give the students the option to have a dialogue about their actions. This allows them to work on their communication skills - share how they are feeling, reflect on their actions, and ask others what they think they can do to make things right."
The call to replace SROs with mental health professionals is something that can be seen throughout the country. On June 30th, community members pressured LAUSD, one of the biggest school districts in the nation, to defund the presence of police officers on school grounds. After much pressure from the community, LAUSD passed an initiative to reduce the police force budget by 35% (about $25 million). According to Howard Blume and Sonali Kohli:
"The money saved from the cuts is to be allocated to fund staff to specifically serve the needs of Black students and a task force that will study ways to reimagine the issue of student and campus safety."
On July 22nd, 2020, there will be a similar vote for PVUSD regarding the use of SROs. The discussion will lay bare the priorities held by the district, including whether to continue funding SROs during a pandemic when students will not even be allowed to attend classes in-person. The PVUSD community, composed of students, alumni, and educators, have reiterated time and time again that SROs do not belong on school grounds. What was perceived to bring safety to school campuses has only brought fear, discrimination, and trauma to the very students that these SROs “work for.” The complete eradication of SROs and criminalization tactics implemented by our educational leaders has been long overdue. Now more than ever, our community is calling for those who hold the reign to the education system in Watsonville to take a stance against the ongoing criminalization of our youth. On July 22nd, the Board of Trustees will vote to either continue its contract with the SROs or end the contract for the 2020-2021 academic school year. Whatever the outcome, the struggle to end the criminalization of our youth, is still ongoing.
Update: On July 22nd, 2020, PVUSD voted to permanently eliminate its SRO program at Watsonville, Pajaro Valley, and Aptos High Schools, choosing to redirect the funds to socio-emotional counselors. The motion was approved by 5-2. Nonetheless, the motion that passed stated that the board will "work with community partners including the police department and Chief Honda... to explore alternatives for keeping our students safe."
Author's Note: Interviews were conducted during research for this piece. Anonymity was given upon request and names have been altered to protect privacy. That said, these are direct quotes from real people.
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